Every culture, every person has their own concept of what Hell would look like. Imagine one of them being an all star lineup of the worst of human history: Jack the Ripper, Jeffrey Dahmer, Elizabeth Báthory. And they’re running the day-to-day operations of the punishment dimension while battling for its ultimate control. This is the premise of the Martian Lit series”Necropolitan” – – and one man, Mark, himself an infamous serial killer but one with a mission, finds himself in the middle of this power struggle.
The second issue of “Necropolitan” just dropped in February, and I had a chance to chat with writer Mike Phillips about the series, his own concepts of Hell, and making it in the world of indie comics.
Tell us about the premise of your series “Necropolitan.”
Mike Phillips: It’s like Game of Thrones or Gangs of New York meets Highlander in Hell with all of history’s worst people stuck together in the punishment dimension. And they’re just fighting over the throne of Hell. Lucifer, the Devil, whatever, we call him Saint Lucifer in our series for reasons that’ll be revealed later. He disappeared a couple hundred year ago, much to the chagrin of his second in command, Beelzebub. Now Beelzebub just kind of left to pick up the pieces after his boss disappeared. And because things weren’t running so smoothly because the boss is gone, all of the humans, these terrible humans that were stuck there over the couple thousand years, they started to get a foothold and to band together and clan up. And here we are, the first issue takes place in 2017 where Beelzebub and his demon army are up to their neck in these other clans that have formed and they’re giving Beelzebub a run for his money. So that’s where we pick up in the first issue.
In this first issue that we meet our protagonist Mark and his new world of Hell. What can readers expect in the second issue?
MP: In the first issue it’s a lot of table setting and world building and getting readers used to our version of Hell. And he figures out how to roll with it, he used to be in the Army. He figures out how to roll with this crazy new existence he’s going to have. And by the end of issue one he figures out what his goal is going to be, which is to try and find his daughter, who he pretty much feels is probably down there with him somewhere. So by the end of issue one he’s got a kind of some mission.
In the beginning of issue two we see him wake up the next day. Now he’s gonna be start to be trained by Jack the Ripper, who’s gonna take him out on what they refer to as The Rounds, where they go into the city of Pandemonium and start shaking down some local businesses for the money that exists down there. Which is basically diamonds and rubies and scalps, that’s like the main currency in Hell. So issue one is a lot more table setting, but issue two is where it gets a lot more action oriented, like more like an action movie kinda deal.
In that first issue we get the basics of Mark’s back story, what brought him to Hell. He was some sort of infamous killer, the kind that gets a fancy name in the news, but to hear him tell his story he really just killed to protect his daughter. Will we see this backstory in any future issues? This conflict he’s having about whether or not he’s a real killer, if he really deserves to be in Hell, to me that’s an interesting avenue to explore.
MP: Yes, absolutely. My partner Julian Darius, he’s who brought me into comic book writing. And he’s a prolific writer. After we established what we were gonna do for the first three issues to tell the first three days of Mark’s new life in Hell, he just started messing around with how do we explain Mark’s origin as the Craigslist Killer? So he just, like I said he’s prolific, he just banged out like a 75 page comic book script, just as he’s making the plan for Mark’s origin, he just accidentally wrote a 75 page comic book detailing Mark’s origin in the army. Having PTSD. Growing distant with his wife due to that. And his daughter growing up in that house and seeing that happen. And she kinda goes to the bad side of the tracks, as it were, and starts dabbling in the wrong crowd and substances. And she eventually just makes a bad choice one day and is murdered as a result of that bad choice.Continued below
And Mark just loses his mind, so he turns into what I affectionately refer to as Dexter meets To Catch a Predator. Where he starts trying to put bait out there on Craigslist to lure these creeps like the one that killed his daughter, to kind of like a motel room situation where the whole room is decked out, covered in plastic. And the guy walks in and there’s Mark and he’s like the Chris Hanson kinda . . . “Do you know who I am? Do you know why you’re here today?” And he just lures him into the room and offs him. So he starts doing this like a serial killer and just trying to anti-hero, you know, clean up the streets kinda deal. He’s definitely nuts, you know like Dexter in a way. But he’s a good guy nuts, so that’s gonna all play out in this origin issue. I don’t know exactly when that’s gonna come out, but it’ll either come out after issue six, or maybe concurrently with issue six as like a spinoff one shot.
How long do you expect the series to run? How far out have you planned?
MP: We’ve outlined, we have ideas for 15-20 issues at this point, but I mean a lot of these stories grow in the telling. And I’m totally fine with this thing going on for 30 or 40 issues. We have an endgame in mind, I’m the kind of person who need there to be an end. I do kinda know where it’s gonna end up, but who knows how many things will come in between now and then to stretch that out. It’s a fun world. Everybody’s a bad guy, and the bad guy’s usually the most interesting. So when every single person is interesting, it can go on as long as the story’s riveting. We’re kind of slow going because this isn’t Julian’s main gig. He has his own series that he’s been working on for a long time, so he and I only really work together a fraction of his writing time. I mean as long as we’re able to fund it, I mean we’ll go as many issues as we can as long as we can keep it riveting to the reader and ourselves.
You’ve got quite a bit of genres working in these two issues. Just in the first issue alone you’ve got the horror, you’ve got the crime, you’ve got plenty of dark humor. Do you have a favorite of those genres to write? And how do you balance those darker and somewhat lighter elements?
MP: That’s definitely a tough decision to make. I love dark humor, that’s just my personality. And a lot of that actually comes out between Julian and myself, and the penciler/inker Steven Legge. He draws some things that are not in the script, and they just make us roll on the floor laughing. A lot of it is like the background demons and stuff, just that we’ve never come up with, he just must be bored one day and just doodle and add these weird demons and creatures in the background. And ’cause it’s in Hell, I mean, you just gotta kinda let it slide and go, yup I guess that thing could exist in Hell. That demon could exist in Hell, why not? Between the three of us, yeah that’s just fun kind of like creating for each other and cracking each other up. And obviously because it’s in Hell most of it’s dark humor.
Crime is always a fun thing to write. The second issue is definitely kind of an homage to the Zed in scene in Pulp Fiction, where everything just goes wrong with Bruce Willis’s attempt to escape the town. And he runs over Marsellus Wallace, I think that’s his name. And then they’re brawl comes into the wrong store. This brawl rolls into the wrong store, and they get taken hostage, everything just goes sideways from the moment Bruce Willis sees Marsellus Wallace. So the second half of issue two kinda has that feel, that everything just goes sideways in a store. Everything that could go wrong does go wrong. And I love the idea of mixing crime with mess ups that that moment in Pulp Fiction has. So maybe that’s a dark humor crossover with crime anyway. So there’s always this, I don’t know if it’s an intention or just this subconscious thing where you want there to be like cool interesting crime things happening, but it’s always fun to subvert them as well. And I guess I can thank Quentin Tarantino for that.Continued below
Oh, horror. Well I mean, horror is always something that I’ve been fascinated with. I mean we love being scared, and I can’t even say that what we’ve done so far is all that scary, it’s kinda been more in the gory element.
Definitely the gore and definitely not for children.
MP: Absolutely not. Yeah, I mean when we were telling artist Steve what we wanted, we definitely said, this is brutal it’s Hell. It has to be brutal, there’s no way around that. I mean if it’s a candy coated Hell no one’s going to buy into it. But try to keep it HBO rated R. Not too crazy. Now there are moment that that kinda I think go a little bit beyond HBO/rated R, maybe into NC17. But the question when we’re writing is, how far do you go before you lose the audience to complete gross out? And I think we’re doing okay.
When you’re making it up, it just seems logical because you’re in Hell. But as I look back through these when I know one of my friends is reading it, I kinda do cringe myself sometimes. Like a friend of mine will be like, “oh yeah I finally got a chance to look at your comic, it’s pretty nuts.” And I’m just like, “let me look at it again now that I know that my friend Ahmad is reading it now.” And it’s like, “oh God, yeah he just watched this demon do this thing to Hitler.” And I wonder what he thinks of me now, you know? So there’s definitely an element of that there that it’s just like, how far is too far? I mean I think we’re walking the line pretty well, but I don’t know.
It’s completely subjective.
I do love the detail that your artists have crammed into these pages. Reading it on an iPad is an experience because I can zoom in and I can look for all those little things. And it’s almost a book that I would tell people read more than once because you’re going to find new things every single time.
MP: I’m still finding things. There was this one little demon, there’s a shot towards the middle of issue one where they’re driving into the Roman compound. And I looked at these pages a million times, ’cause I have to have the editor’s hat on too. And I just, you know, after my 10th time looking at this page I see this one funny fat little demon that’s mostly just a big ball with legs. Like sitting way in the distance, like where’s Waldo style. And I’m just dying laughing. I didn’t even know how we found Steve, and it’s a long story. We were gonna make a documentary with him through Sequart [Films]. It kinda didn’t happen, but he’s also an artist, so we pitched him this and we luckily found someone as demented as us who will just gleefully put these little Easter eggs all around. It’s just disturbingly delightful.
One thing I noticed besides all that detail that made this a very different comic from other comics I’ve read, is paneling choices. I don’t think any two pages in the first issue looked alike with respect to layout. And you all get really creative with your paneling. Did the script lend itself to some of those panel choices, or vice versa?
MP: A lot of that is Steve, he’s got some really fantastic ad-libbing abilities. Some of them are in the script. There’s one I love where we’re finally seeing how messed up Elizabeth Bathory is, and she’s got one of her play things dangling from the ceiling towards the end of issue one. And just basically draining her blood so she can take a bath eventually. And she longingly wraps her knuckles, like the back of her hand against the bars of the . . . actually that might not even be a paneling thing, but that’s just a great team up between Steve and Julian there. But yeah, I mean there are a lot of cool panels where the frame of the panel is just an awning or some sort of part of the building. The one where, I think it’s in the middle of the issue, or towards the beginning of the issue when they’re driving out of Pandemonium across a bridge, and the bridge separates two panels. That’s always one that stands out to people.Continued below
We’ve seen a few versions of Hell in this first issue, so we saw a Roman orgy. We saw the desert. We saw Newark, New Jersey. And I’m from New Jersey so I got a chuckle at that last one – – I worked in Newark for nine years, so I can understand that choice. What would your personal depiction of Hell look like?
MP: First of all, let me address the New Jersey thing because this was a sticking point. I’m from South Jersey, from the Pine Barrens. Out in the middle of nowhere, you can see, beautifully you can see the Milky Way because there’s no lights out where I grew up. So at the first the line was, I forget actually how the line goes. But it’s something like, somehow I knew Hell would look like New Jersey. And I took umbrage with that. I’m like, dude I mean there’s some beautiful parts of New Jersey. There’s a lot of farmland, blah blah blah blah. I go into my speech. I said, “you need to change that to Newark, because I mean that’s the typical stereotype.” So I’m also to blame because I perpetuated it. I didn’t shut it down, so sorry New Jersey and I know New Jersey is beautiful. I’m one of you, I promise I’m one of you. I changed the joke as much as I could, but it still stayed.
And now that we have apologized to the rest of our home state, my question was, what would your depiction of Hell look like? If you were Mark and dropped into Hell, what would your Hell look like?
MP: Okay, well I haven’t really even thought about that. I mean my initial gut response was, well I’m making it right now. But that’s just the story that we came up with. But I don’t know, I mean I grew up in a Christian house. I’m not religious anymore. And don’t even get me started on the idea of religion. But when I was a kid, and I was scared into behaving because I would go to this terrible place. I mean it was a lot of like lava pits and people getting disemboweled by demons and things like that. Just constant pain. I was in fear of this place. Like I can’t even imagine it now that I have two kids, I can’t even imagine just sharing with them the idea of a place like that actually existing. It just seems almost like child abuse to me. You better behave, you better do these 10 things. And if you don’t do these 10 things correctly you go to this naughty place where you get murdered for eternity over and over. I mean, I guess Hell would be just someplace where your worst fears are constantly coming true.
I know there’s some comics that deal with that where someone has a power where their ability is to make you see your most afraid thing. Like I guess maybe in the book IT. So I mean, maybe that’s what I would think Hell would be. Whatever your most afraid of, that manifests in front of you all the time
Were you a big comics fan growing up? Were there certain stories or characters that you may have read that you found have become your biggest influences in your writing?
MP: Oh yeah definitely was a huge comic book fan. I was a child of the 90s. I wasn’t born in the 90s, I was a comic fan of the 90s. I popped my cherry in the early 90s when everyone uses the word glut. Image was just starting, Valiant was there. Eventually Valiant got sold and then Jim Shooter started Defiant. So it was like all these new startups giving Marvel and DC a run for their money. It was an awesome time to be a new comics fan, ’cause there was just so much. So yeah, you could call it a glut. But it was a good glut to me. I had disposable income and I disposed of it. But none of that really had influence on me other than the fact that it just made me love super heroes. Then I started getting a little older and I discovered Vertigo. And “Sandman” and “Swamp Thing” and “Doom Patrol” and things like that. Really kinda opened my brain up to the possibilities. Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman. And eventually, go to college and then you don’t have as much disposable income, so you had to be really tight with your money and I stopped liking comics at that point because it was just too cost prohibitive.Continued below
Then after I graduated I was on the internet one day and I found this website called thecontinuitypages.com. And it was made for people like me where this guy, turned eventually it became one of my best friends, Julian Darius, he created this website where aside from typical comics news, he was creating a website where he was trying to list fictional comic book character’s lives in a reading order. A chronological reading order. So for instance, he tried to create a list where you could read Clark Kent’s life from beginning to end. It wasn’t like “Action Comics” 1-1,000. It was “Action Comics” #42, “Man of Steel” #89, “Superman” #21. I mean he was trying to do what like continuity nerds like me were just like going gaga over. So I fell in love with the website. I found his email. I said, “hey, your site is just my kind of nuts. Can I help you in any way?” And that was, I wanna say 15 years ago. And since then, thecontinuitypages.com has morphed into our site called Sequart.
And since that time in the past 15 years we’ve made 30 books, non-fiction critical books about comics, and wider pop culture, and seven documentaries. Like Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods. And Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts. And She Makes Comics.
Yes, that’s how I heard about Sequart – – She Makes Comics. Excellent documentary. I recommend it to all my friends.
MP: Yeah, it’s a wonderful documentary made by Marisa Stotter, and produced by Patrick Meaney and Jordan Rennert of Respect Films and Julian and myself and a couple other people. And it was a joy to watch the final product of that. I think we started making that around 2013/2014. 2014 San Diego Comic Con, I believe. And wow, that’s definitely one of our achievements of Sequart for sure. Yeah, I’m really proud of that one. Long story short, I’m a huge fan of comics. Julian and I have absorbed a lot of comics and comics history. And now we’re making a weird comic about Hell.
“Necropolitan” is being published by Martian Lit. How did you find them as a publisher for this series?
MP: Julian made that.
So that’s his own publishing company.
MP: Yup, he’s done all this on his own dime, well with help of Kickstarter as well and Patreon. But most of this is just Julian chasing his passion. I mean when he was making The Continuity pPages in the early 2000s and I found him, I was like this guy’s nuts. He’s a genius. And in the best way possible. And whenever he wants to do something and he’s able to do it, financially he tries to do it. This guy is just prolific in writing and programming and after we had been doing Sequart for 10 years he goes, you know I’ve really – – actually he came back from San Diego Comic Con, he was inspired by the community out there. He just said, “you know I think it’s time we started doing this ourselves. We need to make our own comics. He just started doing it. That’s his main passion now, is to do comics in this Martian Comics line. He’s published 18 comics I think in this Martian Universe where Mars is populated by Martians and they’ve cloaked it from us, we can’t tell. And they’ve been quietly invading us and manipulating us for all of the time that we’ve been homo sapien I guess. It’s pretty amazing. He’s got four series that are all inter-connected parts of that. Takes place over 10,000 years of Martian history. And every once in a while he turns his eye towards me and we work on “Necropolitan” a little bit. He is my inspiration to do all this, and he just makes these things. He said, “I’m gonna make Martian Lit. I’m gonna make Martian Comics.” And here we are.
I think I need to hang around this guy, I need some inspiration. Just for that go-getter type personality that I’m just gonna do this. I’m not gonna sit and hem and haw and wait to make a decision, I’m just gonna go in balls to the walls guns a blazing. That’s a rare personality trait.Continued below
MP: We inspire each other because a lot of times when he’s not feeling it, I’m the one pushing him along and I have a skillset that he kinda feels like he lacks. And he definitely can do a million things that I would never dream of being able to do. So we compliment each other a lot. We’ve kinda gotten each other through these past 15 years. And we’ve made a lot of stuff. It’s pretty fun. And it’s a labor of love, we’re not making a ton of money off of this stuff. And we have day jobs. This is totally just ’cause we can, we’re able, and we’re giving it our best shot. In our other documentary, The Image Revolution, about the history of Image Comics, I think it’s the opening scene where Todd McFarlane is saying, the entrepreneur is the one that just takes the leap off the cliff. Just goes for it. And Julian, I think, started to just see that scene when were making the movie and he just started buying into the hype. He’s like, if I’m ever gonna do this, I’ve just got to do it. I don’t even know exactly how to do it. But as I’ve talked about before, he knows how to figure it out. And now he would be right at home as an editor in any major comic book company, because he knows. He’s done a little bit of all. He knows how to letter now. He knows how to color now. Obviously he knows how to write because he’s written novels, he’s written tons of comic book scripts. I mean, the guy would be an asset to any major publisher these days. And he just made himself that thing.
Any other projects on the horizon this year for you or for any members of the creative team?
MP: Yeah, I’m working on something. I don’t think there’s anything I’m ever gonna make that’s gonna be better than what I’m making right now. I’m trying to write a multiple realities comic book series. That I call the Tessellation. And I’m gonna try and tell an anthology of stories on a single page. And by that I mean, there’s gonna be usually four rows going across a double page spread. Like four panels and then underneath that four more panels. So four rows of four panels. And each row is a different reality that sometimes interacts with each other. Just trying to kind of break comics a little bit. So these characters are gonna be able to hop between realities and mess with each other a little bit. Kind of like Counterpart. I wanted to have a high concept of them being able to move between the realities, kind of based on string theory where every decision you make creates a new universe. So just constant new universes being created, and people being able to move between them for reasons I’m not gonna get into right now ’cause it’s just world building nonsense. But I kinda wanted to tell an anthology in a different kinda way where you could read each row as its own story. Or you could read the whole page and see how these stories play off of each other.
So with that high concept I wanted the first story to be something very domestic and banal. Where it’s a relationship that’s splintering and then a husband and a wife have a child. And the husband’s not that great. And he makes this one decision in this road rage moment that splits the comic into four possibilities. And then you see how those four possibilities play out for the rest of the issue. So that’s what I’m working on now. It’s breaking my brain apart. It’s taking me about a year and a half. I’m a parent of young children, so can’t really find the time to get into the brain space to make something this intricate work, but I’m finally done the second draft, and I’m gonna send it off to an editor. Like an honest to goodness real script editor and see what they think, if they can even make heads or tails of it. But it’s ambitious, and now that I’ve finally cracked the first issue, I think the next three or four issues are gonna be very easy compared to this pilot issue. But I’m very proud of it. And I’m throwing all of my parental and spousely fears into it, doomsday scenarios, so it’s coming from a real place of fear. Which I think is fun to read.Continued below
Finally, what one thing do you want readers of our site to know about “Necropolitan?”
MP: I want them to know that there will not ever be any moment of filler or fluff. I want them to know that any moment where we can nip and tuck and make this story streamlined in an effort to get to the final moment, we’ll do that. We’re not gonna fluff this story out. I want to get to the end, and I want every page that you’re reading to be an important character moment or a story advancing moment. So we’re making this stuff on our own dime, and begging every once in a while on Kickstarter. And we’re definitely not pulling in as much money as we’re putting out. So every page counts, because I had never even knew until a year or two ago how expensive a page is. And so we’re gonna trim the fat and get a good story in your hands every single time you open the book.